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Editorial: The fire department issue we’re not covering (at least not yet), and why

By Brandi Makuski

There’s a lot of danger in publishing a story too early.

Our staff has been investigating allegations of mismanagement at the Stevens Point Fire Department for several months. To date, we haven’t found anything worth reporting—though that doesn’t mean there isn’t something there.

A confidential informant contacted our newsroom by email last year with several general allegations of corruption in management at SPFD. The complainant sent us their resignation letter, which includes a claim that their coworker was the victim of an on-duty sexual assault; a crime punishable by up to 60 years in prison, depending on the nature of the offense and a successful conviction.

We informed the complainant that in order to verify their information, we’d need to know their true identity. We told them they would be subject to vetting by our staff, though it was possible their identity could remain confidential.

This is not an uncommon practice in whistleblower news reporting. Though whistleblowers are protected by federal law under certain circumstances, many are still worried about protecting their privacy. We potentially could use a whistleblower as an unnamed source in combination with independent verification and supporting evidence, and other on-the-record sources.

But in this case, the complainant outed themselves—and before our investigation was complete, irrevocably tainting its integrity.

Firefighter/Paramedic Duston Holton, who resigned from SPFD last July, posted his three-page resignation letter to social media last week. The letter contains complaints about not being granted an exit interview, and the department’s 14-day COVID quarantine requirement he said he wasn’t notified about prior to leaving for a planned trip to Texas, also in July.

In his now-public letter, he described SPFD management as “power-hungry” and “hostile,” saying some staff members are treated well while others are yelled at. His letter also includes the name of a former department member who he accused of physically assaulting him with a pair of work boots, and claims another staff member was sexually assaulted after being “struck in the genitals” by another member of management, who he also identified by name.

Such allegations, without evidence, are libelous. They are also tantamount to gossip: true or not, if it gains enough traction, the allegations have the power to destroy reputations, careers, and potentially an entire department.

That is one of the dangers of posting allegations to social media—someone becomes publicly labeled with guilt, merely on an allegation.

Because of these concerns, and despite another news outlet’s rush to print the story, we had no plans to publish any news on this issue unless, or until, we had legitimate evidence to support the allegations.

Combined with the Stevens Point Journal story, Mr. Holton’s social media post, and now, a Feb. 19 statement from the Local 484, our hand was forced in explaining our lack of coverage on this issue.

The Stevens Point firefighters union released the following statement on Friday:

“Stevens Point Fire Fighters Local 484 is aware of the allegations published by a former member of the Stevens Point Fire Department. These allegations are under inquiry by the proper administrative authorities. It is important to note that this is not reflective of the work members of this department do every day to protect the community. The members of the Stevens Point Fire Department stand by their oath to serve the needs of the City of Stevens Point and surrounding communities.”

Mr. Holton even called out the Metro Wire in one of his social media posts last week. He writes that “The Mayor of Stevens Point, Mike Wiza, will say, if he comments at all, that he has no power over the Fire Department and that the governing falls on the Police and Fire Commission. But yet he is the first one to take credit when things go well and deflect when things go wrong. He is also the one that appoints the Commissioners. We have seen lately that the Police and Fire Commission has difficulty in resolving conflict within its respective departments as illustrated by their gross mishandling of former Police Chief Skibba and the current action against Firefighter/Paramedic Bielen.

“I share this with you in hopes that you will take a stand to help the rank and file. Notify your representatives on the Stevens Point Common Council. Even some local new sources, such a the Point-Plover [Metro] Wire, refuse to run the story.”

There are several parts of this statement that this reporter would like to correct, but for the sake of time and efficiency, let’s focus on the two most important ones.

One, it’s true that Mayor Wiza has no authority over police or fire departments. The city installed the optional powers Police and Fire Commission by referendum vote sometime in the 1930s to provide an extra layer of checks-and-balances, requiring a commission of five civilians to oversee the two departments. The only authority the mayor, or the city council, has over either department is the power of the purse: the city approves each department’s annual budget.

As for being “the first” to take credit or deflect, well, isn’t that what mayors do?

Two, the Metro Wire did not refuse to run the story. This reporter explained to Mr. Holton that such an investigation—one revolving around a paramilitary organization with members who consider each other family—would take time. Longer than most, considering additional news coverage on our plate due to the pandemic and a spring election.

A news reporter requires facts; verified data, supporting comments or documents, perhaps a pattern of documented behavior or events, to support a story. They cannot legally or ethically report a story without them.

To put the situation simply: this may be newsworthy at some point in the future. But at present, no arrests have been made, no charges have been filed, and an external review by the human resources director from Wood Co. is currently underway. Legal proceedings are often lengthy, and usually test our patience, but slathering unfounded complaints on social media turns us all into mean punks who enjoy watching others fall down, and do nothing but divide a community.